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Cottrell v. American Family Mutual Insurance Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 18, 2019

Roger D. Cottrell; Teresa M. Cottrell Plaintiffs - Appellants
v.
American Family Mutual Insurance Company, S.I. Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: January 16, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - Hannibal

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, COLLOTON and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.

          SMITH, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Roger Cottrell appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of American Family Mutual Insurance Co., S.I., ("American Family") determining that American Family did not owe uninsured motorist coverage to Cottrell after he was involved in a car crash with Mason Baumgarte. The district court concluded that Baumgarte's actions were the sole proximate cause of the accident. Cottrell asserts that the district court erred. He argues that disputed issues of material fact made summary judgment inappropriate. He contends that an unidentified third party on the road at the time of the crash was a proximate cause of the accident. If Cottrell is correct, his claim against American Family for benefits under the uninsured motorist coverage provision of his policy should proceed. In its summary judgment order, the district court determined that Baumgarte was both the actual and proximate cause of the accident, regardless of the third car's action. We reverse because material facts remain disputed as to causation, making summary judgment inappropriate.

         I. Background

         Several cars traveling on a divided highway met at an intersection of the highway and an access road. Two of them collided. The highway had two northbound lanes divided by a median from two southbound lanes. An access road intersected with the highway and cut straight across at a perpendicular angle to the main highway traffic. Cottrell was northbound, driving at least the speed limit-65 miles-per-hour-but perhaps as fast as 75 miles-per-hour. As Cottrell approached the access road crossing, Baumgarte was stopped on the access road on Cottrell's right-hand side preparing to cross the highway. Baumgarte intended to cross over the two northbound lanes on the access road, onto the median, and then enter southbound traffic. Facing Baumgarte on the access road, stopped in the median, was a brown car apparently preparing to enter northbound traffic.

         Baumgarte saw the driver of the brown car wave to him in a manner that Baumgarte interpreted as permission to cross the highway before the brown car driver would complete his turn into northbound traffic. Baumgarte also saw Cottrell approaching the intersection. Baumgarte believed he "had enough distance to where [Cottrell] wouldn't have been a problem" and that he "could have got across [the northbound lanes] safely." Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. A, Baumgarte Dep. at 20, Cottrell v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., S.I., No. 2:17-cv-00012 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 28, 2017); ECF No. 29-1. After double-checking traffic, Baumgarte began across the northbound lanes towards the median. As he crossed the highway, the brown car pulled into the left northbound lane, momentarily blocking Baumgarte's passage, causing Baumgarte to either slow down or completely stop-right in front of Cottrell. Cottrell T-boned Baumgarte. The brown car drove away in the northbound lane, and its driver remains unidentified.

         When interviewed about the accident, Cottrell stated that he saw Baumgarte before he pulled out into the intersection. In response to a question about whether he could "slam on [the] brakes, swerve, [or] do anything like that" to avoid the collision after Baumgarte pulled onto the highway, Cottrell said "[t]here was no time." Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. C at 590-91, Cottrell v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., S.I., No. 2:17-cv-00012 (E.D. Mo. July 28, 2017), ECF No. 21-3. Another driver, Silvia Louise Rousan-Elliott, saw the accident. When interviewed by police at the scene, Rousan-Elliott said that the brown car "led to the collision." Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. E, Rousan-Elliott Dep. at 10, Cottrell v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., S.I., No. 2:17-cv-00012 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 28, 2017), ECF No. 29-6.

         Cottrell filed a claim with American Family seeking compensatory damages for bodily injury under his policy's uninsured motorist provision. American Family denied the claim after Baumgarte's insurance assessed Baumgarte 100 percent of the liability for the accident and agreed to pay Cottrell's property damage. This lawsuit followed.

         In its summary judgment decision, the district court noted Cottrell's theory for recovery for an uninsured motorist incident is contractual but depends upon the tort liability principle of proximate cause. Under Missouri law, courts, not juries determine proximate cause in the absence of a material fact dispute. See Townsend v. E. Chem. Waste Sys., 234 S.W.3d 452, 466 (Mo.Ct.App. 2007). Finding no genuine issues of material fact, the district court, relying on Horton v. Swift & Co., 415 S.W.2d 801 (Mo. 1967), determined that Baumgarte proximately caused the accident by entering the intersection in front of Cottrell. The district court concluded that Baumgarte lacked time to safely cross the highway ahead of Cottrell. Because the court concluded Baumgarte was the actual and proximate cause of the accident, Cottrell's assertion that the brown car had a role in the collision failed. Consequently, his claim for uninsured motorist coverage from American Family also failed. Cottrell now appeals.

         II. Discussion

         We review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc). "Summary judgment is proper 'if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'" Id. (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2)). We view facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and we make no determinations of credibility; nor do we weigh the evidence or draw inferences, as those functions belong to the jury. Id. The question before us is whether the record, when viewed in the light most favorable to Cottrell, shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that American Family is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).

         We determine materiality of facts based on the substantive law governing an underlying claim. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Facts that, if altered, affect the outcome of a lawsuit under applicable substantive law, are material. Id. A material fact dispute is "genuine" if each party has supplied some evidence that is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving ...


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